It’s a long way down. So long that looking down feels like falling, and looking out you can’t quite tell which way is up, and looking up you might as well be adrift in an ocean the size of the universe. My toes curl at the sight, a vain attempt to make the worn-out soles of my sneakers grip harder on the polished stone.
“Do I really have to?” I say.
My guide chuckles. He’s a large, lumbering sort of man, broad-shouldered and deep-voiced, and the chuckle sounds like two boulders crashing together. He introduced himself to me as the spirit of the mountain when I entered the cave miles below. He’s led me up narrow, twisting passageways, his flickering torch the only source of illumination; in the several days we’ve been on this journey to the peak, he’s fed me on bitter-tasting roots and damp moss and taken care of my safety. Not once has he offered me another name to call him.
“The firebird is a creature of perpetual flight,” he says. “There’s no chance of finding him if you stick to mountainsides.”
I gaze out again into the abyss. Barely visible as the sunset paints the sky to the west, a tense orange thread leads away from the cliff’s edge.
“It doesn’t even look thick enough to hold my weight,” I say. “And I’m not a tightrope walker. I wouldn’t know how to keep my balance.”
“The trick is to keep moving,” he rumbles. “As if you’re riding a - what is that human invention called? - a bicycle.”
I’ve never loved riding bicycles either. As far as I’m concerned, the closer my feet are to the ground, the better. Maybe - the thought occurs to me for the thousandth time as I watch the thread ripple slightly in the wind - maybe I’d be better off giving this whole endeavor up, going home and living out the rest of my life pinned by gravity. But I’ve lived that way already for fifteen years, and I know I can’t survive fifteen more like them. I’ve seen others flying through the air like they weigh nothing. I need to find out how to do the same.
“You’d better be going,” says my guide. “It will be dark soon, and you’ll want to reach him before dawn.”
I nod. But when I step forward, toward the thread, and when I feel the rising mountain wind on my cheeks, this all seems utterly impossible again.
Everyone goes to see the firebird at least once, or so I’m told. For most people it happens when they’re children. Curiosity tugs them toward a mountaintop, or maybe they get lost and need to find the way home, or maybe they go to ask the remedy for a parent or friend’s sickness. I had no questions when I was that age. I kept my head low and my thoughts lower. I thought, when I became a teenager, that I wouldn’t ever have a question so burning it required the firebird to answer.
But in recent years I’ve felt the want, the deep, aching want, to fly. And I haven’t been able to talk myself out of it. And so I’ve come up to walk the thread after all.
Like a bicycle. I shut my eyes; the trick, I think hard, is to just keep moving. Thousands have done this before me, who needed the firebird’s help; it must not be as impossible as it seems from solid ground. So long as I don’t realize how far I have to fall I’ll be fine. So long as I keep my thoughts ahead.
“Are you ready?” my guide prompts.
The sun has faded to a strip of gold on the horizon. The orange thread glows faintly in the navy night.
I put out my foot. Just leaning out far enough to do so sends my head spinning with vertigo. The world below is so small I could be looking at it through a funhouse mirror; the cliff is so sheer it seems concave. I draw back and take a deep gulp of mountain air, working to steady my nerves. Look out. Not down, never down, or I won’t make it a single step.
I try again. I fix my eyes straight ahead. But there’s nothing to see straight ahead; wherever the firebird sits, it’s too far away to glimpse from here. The clouds obscure the light of its flaming wings.
Still. Better ahead than below. I put out my foot, jaw clenched so hard it hurts, and take my first step onto the thread.
For a split second I’m certain it’s going to break. It dips more than it should, more than I like, and it makes a creaking sound like the boards of a ship caught in a windstorm. It holds, but only barely; tiny strands of it seem already to be snapping under me. I list dangerously to the right and almost overcompensate by toppling to the left. I throw out my arms for balance and come close to tumbling backward.
Out. I make my other foot move. Stay in motion. Just like a bicycle.
I’m not looking down, but I can still see the drop in my mind’s eye. I can still feel, as though it’s a real sensation, the air rushing past me as I plummet to the unforgiving rocks below. If this thread breaks, or if I lose my footing, or if I lean too far or a hundred other things, this vast emptiness will be the last thing I ever see.
Finally I settle my eyes on the thread several yards in front of me. If I keep my gaze steady, I can know where to put my feet and not be subject to my view of the ground. I take another step and another, the squeaks of the thread echoing in my ears like claps of thunder.
The fear has always been here. In nightmares about falling from airplanes, in my studied avoidance of the ferris wheels and roller-coasters my friends like, in the dizziness that comes over me even seeing a flight of stairs without railings. The fear that freezes all the air in my lungs and sets my mind going in circles. I can’t think clearly now because of it - only wisps of thought are graspable under the crushing weight of every imagined disaster scenario. I have to be determined in what thought I cling to.
I could imagine myself walking an inch from the ground. If the thread were that low, I wouldn’t mind walking it at all; I’d be able to keep my balance and my motion without a second thought. I could shut my eyes and convince myself that’s what I’m doing. But that would only work for a moment. I’ll remember, eventually, where I am, and opening my eyes onto this scene would probably paralyze me completely. There’s nothing for it but to keep going and hope it all ends soon.
But it doesn’t end. There’s still no sign of the firebird in front of me. The wind picks up instead, and it’s harder, suddenly, to keep my posture straight and my shoulders from leaning.
Cold bites at my fingers and worms its way through my shoes into my toes. I shudder, rubbing my hands over the sleeves of my sweatshirt. The night is full black now and cloudier than ever, and tiny droplets of moisture are condensing like sweat on my brow, on my neck, at the tip of my nose.
Forward. The firebird will be warm.
The wind, though, is still strengthening. The thread is too taut under my weight to sway, but it shivers. My sweatshirt’s hood flaps behind me. I hunch forward to make myself harder to blow over.
My hand shake. What am I doing? What did I climb that mountain for, set out on this impossible trek for? I’ve always stayed as low as I can, and I’ve survived like that. What makes me want to fly so badly? Why won’t the fierce longing in my chest leave me alone and let me walk in safety?
I’m numb now, too numb even to feel the thread beneath my feet.
I shouldn’t have come up here.
Another gust of wind. My next step goes off and lands on empty air. Dread snaps into panic - suddenly there’s nothing solid beneath me at all, not even an illusion of support, suddenly I’m no longer upright. My arms windmill, my legs kick out fruitlessly, but gravity has me now and is yanking me downward.
I’m spinning, or the world is. The night air is hurtling by me. I can already see myself landing, see my neck snapping on a rock, see myself tossed on forces of nature I have no control over - I can already feel the tearing wind and the snatched-away breath and the impact - the impact - it’s already happened a hundred times in my mind over and over and -
On some mad instinct I wrench myself upright and then my knees are bent and my arms flung over my head and, inexplicably, I’m still.
I blink. It takes a few seconds for the world to resolve itself again in my vision. I’m standing on another thread; the same thin orange thread as I was walking on before, but lower down.
Slowly I let my breath out. Yes, there’s more than one thread that leads to the firebird. And if I’ve landed on another - hope stirs again in my chest - then I must be getting close.
My jaw clenches again. Resolve kindles again around my doubt, warming me as the freezing wind continues to howl around. I need to see the firebird. There’s no option of turning back, and even if there was - even if I could wish it and be back on the mountain, back down the stairs and grounded - I wouldn’t take it. I won’t let this fear bar me from what I’ve wanted most my entire life.
Forward. I straighten and move. I allow myself to see nothing but the thread, a little ahead and then father and farther, my toes barely touching it as I come near to running.
The fear has been with me all my life. I’ve let it weigh down my feet and my shoulders and my eyes. I’ve resented it, but I’ve acquiesced. No more. When tomorrow comes I’m going to laugh at gravity, if it takes every ounce of courage and strength I’ve ever learned.
And then I see it. At first it’s nothing but a flicker, and I think it might be my imagination. But it gets bigger, and the faster I run the bigger it gets, and soon it gains shape and form and brightness. A pair of gigantic golden wings, tongues of flame leaping up from them into the star-dusted sky. A pair of talons that grip, I see as I move closer, onto an interwoven net of orange threads like a spiderweb. A head and a beak pointed straight to the sky as he sings, a song like every pipe of an organ sounding at once.
“Firebird!” I call.
The wings sweep down. I do my best to calm my breathing as I approach. It’s easy, now, to stop moving on the thread; I can’t lose my balance when my eyes are fixed on this colossal creature. Its head moves down, its ruby eyes finding me.
“Firebird,” I shout, “I have a question!”
It blinks, slow and deliberate. I stand still and wait for its response. I don’t believe it; I’m really here, I’ve really made it from the mountain. All I have left to do is ask. If I understand its answer I can leave here gliding on the wind that fought me.
When the firebird speaks, it sounds like a song again. It sounds like the playing of a master flutist. “What do you seek, boy?”
The resolve is blazing through my veins now, warming my fingers again, stopping their trembling. It’s crawling up my throat so my voice doesn’t shake either. I feel steady, though I still know I’m miles from the ground, though I know, in some distant corner of my mind, that my precarious perch on the thread hasn’t changed. It’s time for my life to change. To begin.
“I want to fly,” I say. “How do I learn to fly?”
There’s a long silence as he stares at me. Those eyes are twin flames that have burned without rest since the beginning of time. Then he throws his head back again, and his song returns - a hundred thousand blaring organ notes. Louder than every symphony in the world playing at once. It makes the very world quake below it.
But no, I think suddenly. It’s not a song at all. It sounds now as if the organ pipes are clanging together, and I recognize the sound as what it is - laughter.
He’s laughing at my question. My throat goes tight and my palms begin to sweat. Why…
“You ask to fly?” he repeats, and he sounds incredulous.
And then my gaze drifts to my feet again. And in the light of the firebird’s wings, I realize I can’t see the thread anymore. I realize I still can’t feel it beneath my sneakers.
There’s a ringing in my ears, and it’s not from the firebird’s song.
“Boy,” he cries, as though addressing the heavens themselves, “what do you think you’ve been doing?”